I’m somewhat of a revision monkey. I love sculpting words! Which likely explains why I prefer editing to writing.
So, I’m revising—again—and that means I’m reading through James Scott Bell’s excellent Revision & Self-editing—again. This is not a commercial, this is a strongly held opinion: If you don’t own this book you may not be a real writer.
Anyway. Each time I read through the book I glean new insights and shore up the things I already know.
Attributions, for instance
One of the first things writers learn is that said, in most cases, is still the best attribution. Why? Because as JSB writes:
Almost always, the simple said should be your default setting. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that said isn’t creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it. This is a mistake.
Said is almost invisible to the reader but for its primary use as a tag to tell us who is speaking. It does its work and stays out of the way. It lets the dialogue do the heavy lifting.”
As I noted, I’ve revised this manuscript—well, let’s just say I’ve revised it probably too many times. So, why did I still find this in Chapter 22?
“I know I’m married! You hardly need to remind me of that.” Jenny turned her back on her aunt. “I’m the one who’s lived with him and his infidelities. Susan and I are the ones he left behind for his hotties. We didn’t leave him.”
“Didn’t you, dear?” Sarah asked. “Didn’t you leave Chicago in the dead of night with your daughter—without leaving Jonas word—and show up in my living room? Or am I remembering someone else who lived with me for a month?”
Jenny could have screamed. How had things gone so terribly wrong, so quickly? She’d entered her aunt’s living room, been greeted warmly, and been offered a cold drink—which she now held in her hand, untouched. She’d babbled endlessly about Jonas, divorce, Al, the future—trying on new ideas and possibilities.
“But, but… I was just … You don’t understand,” Jenny stammered.
“I don’t? Well, let me recap. Eight years ago you and Jonas vowed before God and the world to love each other as man and wife. He broke those vows with another woman—”
“Twice—that I know of.”
“Twice, that you know of. Then nine months ago you left—”
Jenny tried to interrupt, but Sarah silenced her with a look that would brook no further interruptions.
“Nine months ago you left your husband and your life together, moved with your daughter to Oak Hill, and started life over as a waitress. Now you’re telling me your marriage is over, counseling won’t help, and you may even have a new love. Have I missed anything?”
“Well, yes. It seems you’ve conveniently missed Jonas’ ongoing, and I might add continuing, contribution to the dissolution of this marriage. Or don’t you remember that so well?”
“Of course I remember that, darling,” Sarah soothed. She reached out to touch Jenny’s shoulder. “But Jonas is not the one standing here before me making what I think is a terrible, unconsidered, mistake based on emotion.”
I’m not saying there’s nothing else weak here, but since we’re talking about attributions, did you notice the two or three less-than-perfect attributions I used?
In the second graf, the character is speaking a question that is properly punctuated with a question mark. That makes the “Sarah asked” attribution redundant. To fix, simply replace asked with the invisible said.
Then in the fourth graf, my character is stammering as her self-lies come unglued and then I felt the need to add “Jenny stammered” as an attribution. I did “show, don’t tell” but then I also told. To fix, simply remove the attribution.
Finally, in the last graf here, Jenny’s Aunt Sarah “soothes” her words. Of fer crying out loud, how can one even do that? Characters can’t sneeze words, or cough words, or anything like that. The fix is already in the graf: “Of course I remember that, darling.” Sarah reached out to touch Jenny’s shoulder. “But Jonas …”
No attribution is needed and the action beat conveys Sarah’s attitude.
I’ve heard many published writers say that after their book was published, they went through it again and found things that were wrong—despite their best efforts and the efforts of many competent levels of editors at the publishing house.
Revision is your friend.
Now that I’ve found these errors, I’ll fix them. Then, when I do turn in this manuscript, my editor will find three fewer errors—and he or she will think better of my skills as a writer.
It’s never too late to learn—or, if necessary, to relearn what you’ve already learned. The ability to learn is one of your best tools as a writer. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) once said, “However great a man’s natural talent may be, the act of writing cannot be learned all at once.”
Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.